By John Staatz, Professor Emeritus, Dept. of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, Michigan State University
Soaring and volatile international food prices since 2007-08 have forced West African governments and their development partners to translate their long-standing rhetoric about support for West African agriculture into concrete programmes. Doing so effectively, however, has proven much more challenging than simply meeting the Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme (CAADP) goal of increasing the share of national budgets and donor funds dedicated to the agricultural sector. A recently released joint study by the Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) and Michigan State University (MSU) draws lessons from such efforts over the past 10 years and suggests ways in which policies and programmes can be more effective in helping West Africa feed its young, burgeoning and increasingly urban population. Research by MSU, SFSA and West African scholars provides a number of crucial policy insights.
Policies need to adapt to reflect major changes in the region
During the international food price crisis, West African governments protected consumers from the full impact of volatile international food prices through measures such as tax holidays on imported foods and input subsidies to farmers. These measures, however, have had a high opportunity cost to the local economies, as they absorbed revenues that could have been used to relieve underlying structural constraints to greater agricultural productivity.
To build greater resilience to future price fluctuations, policies need to reflect the major changes taking place in the region beginning with consumption habits. West Africans are changing their diets rapidly, consuming more perishable and processed foods. Consequently, focusing food policies mainly on cereals, as in the past, will be less effective in addressing the future needs of farmers and consumers.
Moreover, focusing food policy primarily on the farm-level is insufficient, as several of the constraints to competitiveness lie in logistics, marketing, processing and retailing. Many of these activities lie in areas outside of the domain of ministries of agriculture, requiring greater cross-sectoral policy co-ordination. West African agriculture can be competitive with imports, but only if entire value chains are improved.
Expanded contracting between farmers, processors and exporters offer promising opportunities to expand competitiveness and raise farmers’ incomes. Design and implementation of such arrangements, however, is not easy, and they often fail. Contracting arrangements need to be tailored carefully to the products involved and to the local economic, social and physical environments to ensure that enough added value is created for each party to justify the added costs of such systems.
Going regional to scale up
Most countries in the region lack the scale economies in critical areas such as input manufacture, agricultural research, higher education and processing to be competitive with global agricultural powerhouses like Brazil, China and India. Therefore, expanded regional integration is critical to the competitiveness of West African agriculture.
More fluid regional trade is also critical in fostering the substitution of locally processed starchy staples (cassava, maize, millet, sorghum) for imported rice during periods of high grain prices.
Expanding regional integration, however, undermines the economic rents that accrue to those who can restrict such trade (e.g., fertiliser dealers with local monopolies, border and police officers manning roadblocks, and high-cost producers of certain agricultural products). Thus, “good governance” efforts aimed at expanding regional integration need to focus on changing the incentives of these groups who currently have an economic interest in hindering regional integration.
Efforts to expand regional food trade also need to be tied closely to developing more cost-effective social protection programmes for the poor. Expanded food exports from low-income countries of the Sahel to their richer neighbours run the risk of pricing poor consumers out of the market. Politically, such a situation is untenable, leading to pressures on political leaders in the exporting countries to ban exports during periods of high prices. Therefore, more effective programmes to protect the poor during these periods of high prices are needed as a complement to more fluid trade.
Moving implementation forward
West African countries, both individually and through regional organisations such as ECOWAS and UEMOA, are increasingly incorporating these findings into their policies, such as the 2015‑25 ECOWAS regional agricultural policy and investment programme (ECOWAP + 10). Yet, experience has shown that designing policies is much easier than implementing them. In moving implementation forward, three key challenges need to be faced.
First, local capacity needs to be strengthened at all levels, from regional organisations like ECOWAS and UEMOA, to commune-level governments and farmer and interprofessional organisations, to analyse and contribute to policy and programme design. Such local knowledge and input are critical to long-term policy relevance and sustainability. Outside consultants are at best a small complement to ongoing local policy processes.
Then, the capacity of stakeholder organisations to monitor, evaluate and insist upon effective policy implementation should be bolstered — e.g., in the reform of input subsidy policies.
Finally, in an environment in which politicians must compete for votes, it is unrealistic to expect that agricultural and food policies will be devoid of political considerations. Rather than decry such political motivations, efforts need to focus on designing policies and programmes, which are motivated in part by political considerations, so that they also help address long-term structural constraints to growth. For example, current efforts underway in several West African countries to promote agricultural mechanisation often end up providing subsidised equipment to large farmers. How can such programmes be redesigned so that they help young people to launch custom tractor hire services, thereby creating jobs for youth while at the same time providing needed mechanisation services to small farmers?
For more information, see Strengthening Regional Agricultural Integration in West Africa: Key Findings & Policy Implications, edited by John M. Staatz, Boubacar Diallo and Nathalie M. Me-Nsope.
 Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS); West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA)